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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A $29 lunch on Manhattan's East Side; recalling cozy home restaurants in Cuba

Ginger & Pepper Crusted Salmon with cauliflower, beets and celery root puree was one of the lunch entrees available on a 3-course Restaurant Week menu for $29 at Tavern 62, a David Burke restaurant on the tony East Side of Manhattan.
I started with a bowl of briny Seafood Chowder (shrimp, clams, leeks and potatoes), one of six appetizers on the price-fixed menu.


I worked up an appetite taking mass transit to the East Side of Manhattan for a bargain $29 lunch at Tavern 62 on Monday. 

I hopped on an express bus from northern New Jersey to the midtown-Manhattan terminal, then hiked through a long pedestrian tunnel and up several flights of stairs to the Q train.

My stop, Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street, is a relatively new subway station with a police booth on the platform, and elevators and an escalator to bring you up to street level.

Hundreds of fine-dining restaurants in Manhattan are offering three-course lunches for $29 and three-course dinners for $42 -- plus tax and tip -- through Friday.

To get a $5 statement credit on a total bill of more than $35, I charged my meal to a pre-registered American Express card.

You can find price-fixed lunches at many Manhattan restaurants, including Tavern 62, after Restaurant Week ends.

The semi-annual promotion returns in July.

2 farmed fish

At Tavern 62, the Restaurant Week menu offered eight entrees, including Roasted Branzino (fillet) and Ginger & Pepper Encrusted Salmon.

All branzino is farmed, so I asked Anthony, my server, about the other choice, and he claimed the fillet was from "wild Atlantic salmon," an oxymoron.

Still, this was one of the best farmed salmon fillets I've had, cooked medium rare, as I requested, and juicy.

I asked my waiter to hold the whipped cream when I ordered Fresh Berries with Passion Fruit Sorbet for dessert.
An unsweetened iced tea was $4 with a refill.
I was seated in what turned out to be the quieter of two dining rooms on the second floor of the restaurant, and walked past Chef/Owner David Burke holding a meeting in an anteroom.
I was disappointed that instead of bread and extra-virgin olive oil, the restaurant serves small muffins and butter, which is presented on a small block of Himalayan Pink Salt (I buy the same salt in a grinder at Costco Wholesale in Teterboro). 
As I was leaving the restaurant, I saw Chef Burke wielding a blow torch over a plate, possibly a dessert. The New Jersey native, who is said to own more than a dozen restaurants, will be 55 on Feb. 27.
DETAILS: Tavern 62 by David Burke is at 135 E. 62nd St., near Lexington Avenue, Manhattan; 1-212-988-9021. Websites: Tavern 62 and NYC Restaurant Week.
I loved the poem by Billy Collins I saw on the Q train: "As you fly swiftly underground ... remember the ones who descended here ... to clear a passage for you where there was only darkness and stone."

Salads at Casual Habana Cafe in Hackensack are a big draw for fans of Cuban food, such as Ensalada de Espinaca y Remolacha or fresh baby spinach tossed with slow-roasted beets and blue cheese, dressed in Spanish Amontillado sherry vinaigrette ($5), above.
Ensalad Aguacate Tropical or ripe avocado, red onion, fresh pineapple and romaine hearts in a cilantro vinaigrette ($6) is chopped into small pieces that make it difficult to eat. We didn't get a serving spoon with the salads, so it was hard to share them.

Cuba's home restaurants

It doesn't take much -- the sound of Cuban salsa music or biting into a tostone -- to remind me of vacations in Cuba, and the cozy home restaurants where I enjoyed so many great meals.

Late Saturday afternoon, we drove over to the closest I can come in the United States, Casual Habana Cafe in Hackensack, for a tasty Cuban dinner.

Me and my wife ordered two salads and shared a Caribbean Paella with two side dishes, and the total was only $28, plus tax and tip, less than I spent for lunch on Monday in Manhattan.

Minor annoyances included my chair, which was too low for the table; a table that rocked; having to ask for a cloth napkin, which aren't put out until 5 p.m.; and no serving spoon with our salads. 

On visits to Cuba, I enjoyed exploring paladares or privately owned 12-seat restaurants in homes or apartments, where I was served moderately priced meals of pork, chicken or seafood, with salad, rice and beans.

I recall me and my wife getting a tip from a taxi driver at my hotel in Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city, and going to a private home for a lunch of some the best lobster we've ever had.

My last trip to Cuba was in 2004, but I've read that many more home restaurants have opened in Havana, Santiago and other cities.

At Casual Habana Cafe, I ordered the Paella Caribena ($17), which was served in a covered pot, but my wife was disappointed to find only two shrimp, and left all of the mussels, clams and squid to me, below.
We loved the long-grain saffron rice.
Two side dishes come with each entree, so we ordered Platanos Maduros or sweet plantains, and Tostones, twice-smashed and fried green plantains, which are sprinkled with a little salt and served with a dipping sauce.
DETAILS: Casual Habana Cafe, at 125 Main St. in Hackensack, is a BYO; 1-201-880-9844. Open 7 days, metered street parking and a small lot in back, enter through unmarked double doors painted orange.  
WEBSITE: Casual Habana Cafe.
MORE ON PALADARES: San Cristobal, a home restaurant in Havana, from a 2012 post on Guardian.com, "Top 10 Paladares in Cuba."